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SETTING AND MAINTAINING BOUNDARIES FOR GRIEVING

When I first started writing on this topic, I churned out a thoughtful and eloquent deconstruction of the parallels between reconciling the unpredictability of the grieving process with learning how to set boundaries as a woman in her mid-twenties. It was great. If I ever write for an academic journal, I’ll be sure to publish it there. The problem with it was that I very carefully and studiously edited out the most important part of my grieving process so far: white hot rage.

A very frustrating thing about grief is that when it happens in your mid-twenties, it brings up emotional challenges that conflict directly with learning how to navigate adulthood as an independent and empowered person. The unpredictability of the experience can impede the self-esteem required to establish certain boundaries needed to create a safe and healthy space to grieve in. I was hopelessly unable to create and defend my boundaries after my dad died, and have spent a lot of time feeling furious about that.

I am a people-pleaser and an overachiever, and even now I often feel that any expression of my grief would be an inconvenience to the people around me. Should I find myself uncharacteristically unable to contain my emotions in front of others, my immediate course of action is to figure out ways to lighten the load for whoever is bearing witness to my “breakdowns.” My conditioning to put others’ well-being ahead of my own stopped me from giving myself the space to acknowledge the idea that my vulnerability and self-esteem demanded that I put myself first in order to start to heal. Grief can feel like a very selfish endeavor. It is, and that is okay.

The truth is that anger has been a big part of my grieving process for the last year. At times I have been irreconcilably angry about the period of time immediately following my father’s death when I had to navigate both my grief and keeping the lines of communication open with a person who belittled my experience and used it as a weapon. Vulnerability and insecurity are overwhelming aspects of grief, and they left me susceptible to types of treatment I would not have stood for otherwise, and the effects have been deep and lasting.

Reconciling myself with the reality of my loss was an extremely confusing time. I didn’t know what grieving was and I had no idea that the ups and downs I was experiencing had anything to do with the death of my father. I was tired all of the time, could barely remember anything, and yo-yoed between making jokes about it and not being able to get out of bed. I did not know how to set boundaries for what kind of treatment I was willing to accept from anyone in my life. I desperately craved stability and companionship and I did not want to be alone. I was drowning in a tumultuous sea of sadness. Some days the waters were calm, and other days the waves could obliterate an entire village.

I have spent a lot of time setting fires in my psyche over the reality that I wasted my time in the last few weeks of my dad’s life sharing my experience with people who took advantage of my vulnerability. It has been tedious and frustrating work to forgive myself and attempt to understand the complexity of those situations. As a result, I am fiercely protective of the space I need to grieve, and I advocate for others to empower themselves to do the same.

The unfortunate reality in our society is that a huge part of grieving is dealing with people who think they can speak about what you’re going through; who dismiss and belittle your lived experience by placing expectations on your ability to “overcome” it, who perhaps have the audacity to label your actions “crazy,” or who make the mistake of comparing your loss to an incomparable event in their own life (if another person likens my father’s death to the loss of their dog…). A person’s inability to empathize is not your responsibility to accommodate. Do not shy away from setting boundaries around your very personal and innately individual experience by speaking up and letting people know what is and is not okay with you. If you listen carefully to it, your anger can be a very informative and valuable tool to protect yourself.

As a woman who has felt guilty for asserting myself, taking up space, and inconveniencing others, the overarching lesson I’ve learned about my grief is that I am not sorry. I am not sorry if my grief makes others feel uncomfortable. I am not sorry if my reaction to loss is inconvenient, and I am not sorry I bailed on our plans so I could watch emotional Oscar acceptance speeches on YouTube while sitting in a towel on my bathroom floor.

Grief is terrible, and refusing to apologize for that fact has been an invaluable and empowering way to create the space I need to heal. Nobody who truly loves you will ever be let down by you doing something to help yourself bear the weight of loss.

3 Comments

  1. bijb
    August 12, 2015

    Thank you so much for this article. It was so validating to read.

  2. BetsyMastrobuono
    August 12, 2015

    There is no time limit on grief. Loved article. Brilliant! !!

  3. BetsyMastrobuono
    August 12, 2016

    Again you have thrilled me with the written word and topic. Slowly people will stop comparing loses of their dog to my Husband and our Love. Soon they will just say “sorry for your loss. What can I do.”

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